Astronomers around the world are watching (perhaps biting their nails) as the web telescope becomes a $ 10 billion game of origami.
During launch the top of the rocket is tightly packed in a container, which separates from the spacecraft in orbit after the telescope is launched and expands the various elements and equipment for 29 days. When it reaches its final shape during a trek of nearly a million miles from Earth, it will blossom into a tennis court-sized observation deck and unfold a large solar shield with 21-foot-wide mirrors in the center.
Webin’s solar panel array and antenna will automatically come out on the first day. After that everything will be controlled by the task managers on the ground and they will decide when to proceed with each subsequent deployment depending on how well the process goes.
Three days after launch, engineers are commanded to fold both hands on either side of the telescope to support the telescope’s solar shield, which is 69 feet high and 46 feet wide. The shield is a soft five-layer blanket of thin, silver plastic that protects the thermal science equipment from the sun. Two days after the arms are extended, the shield is expected to stretch, and two days of careful tightening, a process engineers call tension.
Many tools will be used throughout the process. Ten to 14 days after launch, the telescope’s windshield expands to form its iconic beehive with 21-foot-wide gold-plated glass parts.
Twenty-nine days after launch, the telescope reaches its final destination, beyond the Moon and beyond the gravitational forces of the Earth and the Sun. If task managers decide to delay certain tool deployments during operation, the deployment timeline may become longer.
Then, astronomers would spend six months testing communications and modifying various systems before using it, searching for ancient light from the earliest days of the universe.
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